Digging into Voter Disengagement in Brownsville

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Lisa Kenner in her resident association office. She believes political disengagement among her neighbors is a symptom of their challenging lives.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

Lisa Kenner in her resident association office. She believes political disengagement among her neighbors is a symptom of their challenging lives. “Here, people been beat down so much they don't see.”

This article is an installment in The Five Borough Ballot, a collaboration between City Limits, City & State and WNET’s MetroFocus. In each edition of the print and video series, we return to a location in each of the five boroughs to ask real New Yorkers their take on the 2013 election as it unfolds. For a complete overview of the series, go here

Gunshots. Waterbugs. Losing my mother. Asked to list their fears at a youth conference in mid-June, the children of the Van Dyke public housing complex in Brownsville, writing on poster board, inked in Crayola colors a litany of dreads. Clowns. Doctor. Rats.

Lisa Kenner, the Resident Association president at the 22-building Van Dyke development, organized the day-long conference, which combined motivational speeches with lessons in elementary finance. She says 50 people attended—not bad for a sunny Saturday. But that was nothing compared to the appearance of City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy. “She surprised me,” says Kenner. “She showed up.”

Kenner—who as RA president is a force to be reckoned with at Van Dyke—and Mealy, who has represented the area in the Council since 2005, are not close. Kenner says she has been asked to run against Mealy in the past but has declined. She blames a falling out between Mealy and another local pol, Alicka Amprey-Samuel, for allowing William Boyland, Jr. to become the area’s assemblyman; Boyland now faces trial on a slew of corruption charges. Kenner served as a Democratic district leader from 2004 to 2008; Mealy took over that post in 2010.

Ask a person around Van Dyke about this year’s mayoral election and you’re unlikely to find much interest. And if interest in the mayoral race is vapor-thin, engagement in down-ballot races is nonexistent.

“Talk about the election? Not for three years,” said one man in his 40s standing outside Kenner’s office. Told that there’s a city election in 2013, he said, “Oh no. No no no. I won’t be voting for that. I never vote in city elections,” and walked away, displeased at the inquiry. A block away, a young man in glasses barked, “I don’t give a damn about no election,” then asked rhetorically, “Is there a black man running?” but wasn’t impressed to hear that, yes, a black man is in the mayor’s race.

Kenner thinks people are turned off because the challenges they face have narrowed their perspective.

“Here, people been beat down so much they don’t see,” she says. The conversation at Van Dyke, she adds, isn’t about who should be the next mayor, but about whether to have an annual community event that Kenner would rather skip. “They worried about Family Day. They worried about franks and hamburgers.”

Others around Van Dyke have different explanations for the lack of interest. Zakkia Hallums, a lifelong Brownsville resident in her 20s, says people at Van Dyke haven’t tuned in to the mayoral campaign because, “They aren’t really campaigning here. We’re not very much informed.”

Hallums has a day job carrying petitions for Abe George, one of the two men (Kenneth Thompson is the other) challenging District Attorney Charles Hynes. “It’s hard getting signatures because people think once politicians get into office, they’re bull—t anyway,” she says. People are turned off, she says, when elected officials pursue individual agendas rather than burying old grudges and working together. She once worked for Mealy, whom she says is a nice person. “It’s hard for her to pull through when folks keep shutting her down,” Hallums adds. She believes Mealy gets resistance from Kenner on ideas to help Van Dyke. “She can’t get nothing done.”

What’s frustrating to her is that, while many of Brownsville’s problems are hard to solve—intergenerational poverty, health disparities, gun violence—others shouldn’t be. Six years ago, Hallums says, the city removed the traffic light at a nearby intersection near a senior center. To this day, seniors expect to cross safely but narrowly avoid getting hit; some don’t avoid it. She wonders why they don’t just put the light back.

The most common complaint at Van Dyke is that there’s nothing for the kids to do, and Hallums shares that concern. While Kenner views Family Day as a distraction and has resisted efforts to organize one this year, Hallums believes a day of hamburgers and hot dogs on the patios around Van Dyke’s mix of high- and low-rise buildings would at least give young people an activity. Hoping to fill the gap between what Van Dyke’s kids need and what they have, Hallums and her friends sell candy on Sundays to buy balls, jump-ropes and other play equipment for local children. Self-reliance is a great thing, but in this case it reflects a broad feeling that government is incapable of addressing even simple needs.

“These young people, they don’t care,” about politics, she says, gesturing to her friends milling about the open area between Powell Street, Blake Avenue and Dumont Street. “They’ve given up on them.”

Standing outside the nearby senior center, Earl Hunter, 68, and his friend Kindu, who declined to give his last name or age, say they also have no interest in politics.

“I ain’t never been political,” says Kindu. He believes politics is like religion: Unless they are from the same sect, two people will never be able to really communicate about it. “I can’t vote. I did 10 years in prison,” he adds. Asked if he might be able to regain his franchise, he answers, “I probably could. But I won’t.”

Earl’s rejection of politics is less about communication problems, and more about the power differential. “It’s always been the same and it always will be. Because it’s the have and have nots,” Earl says. “And we are the have nots.”

Both men are as worried about the neighborhood’s young people as Kenner or Hallums. If he were mayor, Hunter says, his first priority would be to “try to get the young people something to do.”

“You can’t fault these young kids for what’s going on,” he says. “Every place where there’s a possibility that they could burn off that energy” is closed off to them.

“No positive role models,” adds Kindu, who has a prosthetic device below his left knee where a cinder block crushed his leg in a construction accident. “All the fathers are gone. Moms are being mothers and fathers. Their lives all f—-d up.”

The men differ subtly on whose fault that is. “I stopped blaming white people a long time ago,” Kindu says. “It ain’t about the blame game no more.” It’s everyone’s fault, he says. For his part, Earl believes responsibility is shared, but not equally. “That blame game is everybody included, but it does start at one particular place and that’s the people in power.”

It’s clear that Earl is not as disengaged from politics as he lets on. He spends three to four hours a day watching the news. He feels President Obama is being unfairly thwarted by Republicans. “Instead of drawing up to the table and trying to do something, they’re pulling back,” he says. And like Kindu, Hunter brings up—unprompted—the issue of race. “I should have a lot of animosity in me,” he says, having lived through the civil rights era. But he believes having actually experienced it gives him perspective that isn’t shared by people who read about Jim Crow in books. “If you don’t have insight,” he says, “you are lost.”

The 2013 campaign is not something people out in the street at Van Dyke last week wanted to talk about. But as Kindu and Earl displayed, the disengagement is not so much from politics—the idea that there are decisions about the direction of society that affect each of us—as it is from elections. People certainly have ideas about what their community needs. They just have no faith in elected officials to deliver. Indeed, concern about Brownsville’s youth links Hallums, who is very politically engaged, with Kindu, who has never voted in his life; it in turn unites Hallums and Kenner, even if they have different takes on neighborhood politics.

Kenner was recently in Tampa for a five-day training program to becoming a coordinator for Section 3, the federal law requiring public housing authorities like NYCHA to employ residents on large capital projects. She’s hoping to secure jobs for local youth in and around the nearby Prospect Plaza site, which is finally being torn down and rebuilt. She knows her neighbors are looking for government to make a difference, so jobs would be a great boon not just to the young workers, but also to those just walking by. “When young people work in the neighborhood who live in the neighborhood, it just lifts your spirits,” she says.

At Kenner’s recent youth conference, after they were asked to delineate their fears, the children of Van Dyke worked on another posterboard, this one for their dreams.

“Lawyer. Doctor. Teacher. Pop-star. To own my own home. See Jesus’s face. Singer. To be rich. Big sister. Attend college.” No one wanted to be president, let alone mayor.